13 Sep 2021
Even if you haven’t been to Stroud or bought a dairy free coffee at Woodruffs (which bills itself as Britain’s first totally organic café) you may have already heard a few things about this Cotswold market town’s long-standing green reputation.
- It’s the birthplace of Extinction Rebellion (XR)
- 2015: the first carbon neutral authority in Europe
- 2018: one of the first councils to declare a climate emergency.
Barry Wyatt, currently Director of Development Services at Stroud District Council, reckons that Stroud is spearheading a really big change in the way councils help their community move towards carbon neutral lifestyles. "It isn’t about a council having a couple of officers who do interesting green things, this is a fundamental shift in the way councils work both in terms of their own operations but importantly with communities, and how communities need to embrace these changes," says Wyatt.
Change in approach
"We need to help people to emotionally connect to and understand the consequences of doing nothing if we are to see that necessary shift from individuals doing lots of little things to communities doing lots of big things," says Wyatt. "Part of my approach is to work with and alongside community based organisations such as Transition Stroud (a community network aiming to move to a locally-based low carbon lifestyle) so we can operate at community level rather than sit on high in the tower of Ebley Mill (the council offices) and send out rulings. That’s the historical way that councils have done it, and it hasn’t always worked."
It’s not just how the council communicates with the community that’s set to change. There’s also a real cross-party energy politically. Wyatt points out: "A clear indication of how ‘green’ our communities are is the District’s 11 Green councillors (out of 51) who form part of the Labour-Liberal Democrats-Green alliance that runs the council. The motion to declare a Climate Change Emergency was supported across all parties and a number of members have certainly led from the front in working on green initiatives in the heart of their communities – at times this has left officers struggling to keep up with their enthusiasm!"
One of the country’s few women Council Leaders is Doina Cornell, the Labour leader of Stroud District Council since January 2019. She explains: "Stroud District Council is a 'No Overall Control' council in that no single political group holds a majority, instead it has been run by an alliance of Labour-Green-Liberal Democrat parties since 2012, but we seek to be as inclusive as possible, so much work is also done cross-party with the Conservatives also. I believe this pays off, and is one major factor in our council's environmental achievements as we get expertise, contributions from members of all parties. The cross-party working group on waste and recycling is a good practical example which resulted in us winning a national award in June 2019, with four councillors from four different parties at the ceremony. Furthermore, this cross-party work for the benefit of our district is well regarded by our local residents."
Stroud has long been clear that improving the infrastructure of existing homes across the District is a priority. Like many of their successes, it’s occurred because of a partnership. The Council owns and manages its own housing stock of 5,200 homes which boasts solar panels on 615 roofs and there are Ground Source/Air Source heat pumps in a further 538 homes. "The performance of new build homes, while important in the longer term, does not provide us with the full picture as our build rate in Stroud is around 460 houses per year. But we’ve got 55,000 existing homes, so if our target is carbon neutrality by 2030 then improving existing stock needs to be the focus for us," says Wyatt, explaining that much of the work to date has been driven by a focus on fuel poverty.
"Since 2001 we’ve had a fantastic Warm & Well partnership between all the Gloucestershire Authorities and the Severn Wye Energy Agency, which provides energy saving advice to homeowners and private renting tenants. This has been significant in combating fuel poverty, reducing CO2 emissions and supporting the local economy as most installations have been done using local companies whose details are held on our Link to Energy website," he says, adding that Warm & Well has led to 129 new central heating systems being installed "which will save the NHS £1.15 million from the potential ill health that this is going to stop because homes are now adequately heated. Warm & Well interventions have also delivered 8,032 tonnes of CO2 savings to date."
The current three-year agreement is close to ending but there’s a plan to continue with three local authorities, including Stroud, putting in £20,000 a year each.
Knowing what’s needed
During a filmed talk for Carbon Neutral Randwick at Randwick Village Hall, Dr Simon Pickering, one of Stroud’s six Green councillors, and chair of the Environment Committee, explains that for Stroud to be carbon neutral by 2030 it needs:
- A complete shift to very low or zero carbon electricity generation (mostly renewable and much of it decentralised).
- Smarter and more flexible management of electricity demand including storage.
- Huge reductions in energy demand by improving energy performance of all buildings.
- Decarbonise heat (ie, get rid of gas).
- Reduce carbon emission of road transport – through waking, cycling, shared transport and electric vehicles.
- Ensure new builds achieve full low carbon potential – smarter energy.
- Dramatic reduction in emissions from agriculture and food production.
- Huge reduction in generation of waste (and dealing with existing waste).
- Dramatic increase in capture of carbon (eg, tree planting).
Pickering says: "We have to do all of these. They are all technically possible with the right planning and funding. What the district council can do is have a laser focus on emission reduction with communication, leadership, setting an example, planning policy, investment, purchasing, partnership and purposeful action."
So how does Stroud have that laser focus? "In Stroud we developed Target 2050 before it became trendy to develop '2050' targets, that was between 2007-12," says Wyatt. "We put in money to work with exemplar homes and businesses (small and medium sized – everything from pubs to golf clubs to tyre repair garages to office buildings and community businesses) to model what a 60 per cent reduction in carbon would look like. We paid for their energy survey and then signposted some grant support which helped them to meet the costs to implement the measures. Severn Wye Energy Agency also provided hand-holding work and reported back."
"That set us on that path. We set up some global thinktanks under the umbrella of Local Strategic Partnership looking at housing, food and transport. We produced reports through a workshop process (run by particular individuals invited because they brought knowledge to the agenda). For food we considered what would it take to make Stroud self-sufficient in food terms without fertilisers or pesticides and to see if it was achievable led by one of the Green district councillors, Fiona Macmillan. Then they presented it." But Wyatt thinks it is the residents and local politicians who have brought the problem of climate change into much sharper focus, "which is why Stroud was early to claim a climate change emergency. Subsequently many other councils have signed up. It’s interesting to monitor the local government web chatter, where council officers say, 'well we’ve declared it, but we’re not sure what to do now. How do we encourage our communities to make those changes without us having to spend money that we haven’t got?'"
"It’s different in Stroud, not because it’s the home of XR, but because this time round it does feel that the community is more aware and is backing significant and urgent change – and the council simply doesn’t have the funds to pay for technological solutions to lower carbon lifestyles. So, we plan to work with Transition Stroud, a network of people and groups that are transitioning to a locally-based low carbon lifestyle. Also, we still maintain our Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) (following the Local Government Act 2000 local authorities had a duty to prepare community plans and the Local Strategic Partnerships oversee delivery of the Sustainable Community Strategy). So there’s a broad representation of individuals. It feels more grassroots which we can plug into the support arms of district and county council – we give the responsibility to manage and the district council provides an enabling force to make it happen," says Wyatt.
"I don’t think the community would respond well to us issuing orders. But through the Local Strategic Partnerships we can show what 'good' looks like, then hopefully the snowball will start to roll. Transition Stroud has a series of transition parishes, and they want to know what they can do as a community to reduce carbon emissions, for example in Randwick. Options for the future are likely to include community energy projects where dispersed generators and storage are networked together as generation is democratised. Also the potential for joint commissioning projects across a community, rather than on a home-by-home basis has the potential to stimulate delivery for solar power, battery storage and community energy generation." It might also lead to bulk purchase of energy efficiency measures, charging points for electric vehicles or items for a local allotment group or food based groups. "Stroud already has a highly successful and vibrant weekly farmers’ market with opportunities for the community to reduce the emissions associated with the production and distribution of food," he adds.
Aiming for Carbon Neutral
On 6 June 2019 Stroud began the detailed work of responding to their climate emergency declaration with a framework for moving towards a Carbon Neutral District by 2030. With Carbon Neutral the target, the council’s journey needs another rethink. "It’s a psychology thing," says Wyatt. "If people think the council has got it covered, they are less likely to make those big behavioural changes. There’s a very necessary gap between us and community groups, including Transition, that separates us from leading too overtly from the front because we simply have not got it covered! We’re trying to avoid cultural dependency on the district council. But we can signpost and provide support – we don’t want to say 'Just relax, don’t worry, we’ve got an action plan in place and we’ve got it under control.'"
"We are still in really early stages – our new Carbon Neutral officer (CN2030) started in September 2019. One of her jobs following the declaration of emergency will be a closer 'changing climate' scrutiny on all council decisions and working with report authors to help them to self-assess the climate change implications of the decisions that they are recommending."
"We’ve got six district authorities in Gloucestershire and five have declared a climate emergency… so I’ve put a proposal forward to see whether Stroud could take the lead for the county and host support here. It would be fascinating as we all have different geographies and politics but it also makes sense to do it as a county as the approaches are going to be similar, irrespective of our differences. There’s real potential for collaboration. We’ll be working with authorities unsure about depth at the moment," he says.
How effective are changes?
"Our procurement strategy is new – we measure and report in district and in county contracts. The expectation is that we will increase the use of local companies every year so more heavily weighted to Stroud based and Gloucestershire based. We’ve accepted we might pay a little more, but if a supplier employs local people in local companies we can give preferential weighting. You have to be explicit in terms of scoring, and those companies need environmental strategies and to be minimising their carbon and other emissions," he says.
Planting trees is on the agenda too. "We are starting to look at possibilities for planting schemes and have identified some locations which are pretty poor agriculturally. While small scale at the moment, it’s a good start and may develop into a local offsetting scheme which also captures carbon, provides a local amenity, supports biodiversity and attenuates flood flows," says Wyatt.
Stroud suffered in 2007 when 200 properties were flooded. In a bid to protect residents a natural flood management scheme was set up. Running since 2014 this sustainable urban draining programme (known as the Rural SuDS) has been found to have multiple benefits from boosting biodiversity to resilience. "Climate change increases the incidence of more heavy rain and Stroud is at the centre of five river valleys. In 2007 we had floods and some houses were inundated. So, we launched a programme with the Environment Agency to increase water storage at the upper catches of the River Frome, creating 500-600 woody dams which slow silt and water, and have had quite a significant effect on peaked flow levels," he says.
"Lots of little changes do not make a big change. We need people to help people to make lots of those big changes, whether its prioritising energy improvements in their homes or places of work, or big lifestyle and behaviour changes," says Wyatt with enthusiasm. But it’s clear he’s positive that this can be done: "We’re the first carbon neutral authority in Europe – our offsetting exceeded our emissions significantly. The council started early which has given us a great platform to launch towards a carbon neutral district by 2030. What is clear to me is that we will only get there if the community helps us to climb this proverbial Everest."
Wyatt’s conclusion may be tempered by realism, but Stroud’s impressive approach has a great deal that other councils might find worth copying.